Thoughts of a Country Preacher

The Monday morning ruminations of a pastor.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The roles of Pastors, Elders, and Congregations in a New Testament Church

As I read through the scriptures, I find that we are led toward a polity in which a singular or plurality of pastors/elders teaches and guides those under their care, while the congregation corporately agrees upon a church wide vision and a set of goals that the church as a whole seeks to carry out, under the direction of the pastor/elders and the deacons. This model is virtually identical to the Congregational model, with the exception that it remains silent on the exact number of pastor/elders, largely because the scriptures themselves remain silent on this issue.

The Biblical Mandate for and Role of the Pastor/Elder

In its discussions of the Early Church, the New Testament calls for two offices to rule over and guide the church. The first office of pastor/elder is tasked with teaching and providing spiritual guidance while the second office of the deacon is tasked with caring for the temporal needs of the church so that the pastor/elder may devote himself to the study and teaching of the Word. For the purpose of this post, I will primarily focus on the biblical mandate and role of the first office of pastor/elder.
The New Testament identifies a church’s first office with three terms. The first is presbuterouV, which is translated "elder," episkopoV, which is typically translated as either overseer or bishop, and poimhn, which is usually translated as pastor or shepherd. Given that the New Testament uses these terms interchangeably and occasionally uses them together to refer to the different roles of the one office (1Peter 5:1 - 3), one may conclude that these terms are understood to be synonymous in the New Testament writings. While the aforementioned evidence establishes the fact that the New Testament calls for the guidance of pastor/elders over a New Testament church, it would be prudent to stop here to examine whether or not the biblical texts call for a specific number of pastor/elders. Some would correctly point out that the term presbuterouV is always plural in the New Testament, and thus conclude that the Bible calls for a plurality of elders. However, the terms episkopoV and poimhn, are often found in the singular tense in the New Testament, thus nullifying the conclusion that the New Testament calls for a plurality of elders. Based upon my readings of the texts, I find no reason to argue for a singular or plurality of pastor/elders dogmatically, and therefore conclude that such a decision may be left up to the congregation as it feels led and needs demand.
In Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, Dr. Daniel Akin notes that the New Testament pastor/elder is given eight specific roles.

First, he has overall responsibility and oversight of his congregation (Heb. 13:17).
Second, he is to seek the mind of Christ (Eph. 1:22).
Third, he must be apt to preach and teach (Eph. 4:11).
Fourth, he shall maintain the health of relationships in the church (Gal. 6:1).
Fifth, the pastor/elder shall exercise at least a general oversight of the church’s finances (Acts 11:30).
Sixth, he shall lead in the appointment of deacons (Acts 6:1 - 6).
Seventh, he is to lead by example (Heb. 13:7).
Finally, the pastor/elder is to lead in the exercise of church discipline (Gal. 6:1).

From Dr. Akin’s overview of the roles of the pastor/elder, one may quickly see that the pastor/elder’s primary function it to lead the teaching ministry of the church, and provide guidance to the church in its decision making processes.

The Biblical Basis for the Congregation’s Participation in the Church’s Polity

Throughout the course of the New Testament, we find that the congregation was the final temporal authority within their local church. In various passages, we find that the congregation was responsible for the authorization of new leaders, the discipline of church members, and the approval of plans and goals presented to them by their leadership. Because this pattern of congregational participation is laid out for us in the scriptures, it is then mandatory for us to model our church’s polity in a similar fashion.
We best see evidence for the congregation’s first role in church government, the authorization of new leadership, in passages such as Acts 11:22 and Acts 13:1. In Acts 11, we see that persecution scattered the church at Jerusalem, and that some believers had settled in Antioch. While in Antioch, they had an opportunity to lead many to faith in Christ. When news of this work reached Jerusalem, the church body as a whole commissioned Barnabas to go to Antioch for the purpose of teaching and training those new believers. By the beginning of Acts 13, the church at Antioch had been well established, and through the leading of the Holy Spirit felt called to begin sending missionaries themselves. Following the leading of the Spirit, the church commissioned Barnabas and Saul as missionaries, and sent them on their first missionary journey.
Evidence for the congregation’s second role in church government, the discipline of the church’s members, is seen in many instances in the book of first and second Corinthians. From these passages, I believe that 1 Corinthians 5 is the best illustration of the church’s responsibility to exercise oversight over the spiritual purity of its members. In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 5, Paul notes that an extreme case of sexual immorality existed in the congregation. After examining this case, Paul concluded that the Corinthians must remove the offender from fellowship. However, Paul does not exercise his Apostolic authority to excommunicate the offender, nor does he call upon the pastor/elders to remove him from membership. Instead, Paul calls on the congregation to remove this person from them "when they are assembled together" (vs. 4).
Evidence for the congregation’s third role in church government, the approval of plans and goals presented to them by their leadership, is best illustrated in passages such as Acts 6. In the opening verses of Acts 6, we find that the church had grown too large for the Apostles to govern alone, as evidenced by the fact that many were being overlooked during the daily distribution of bread. To solve this problem, the Apostles proposed that seven men should be selected from the church to oversee the physical needs of the congregation so that the Apostles could focus on their teaching ministry. However, while implementing this plan, the Apostles did not unilaterally exercise their authority over the church, but instead submitted their proposal to the congregation at large, which "found approval with the whole congregation" (vs. 5).
Finally, as a sidebar, there are also theological reasons for seeking a congregational polity, most notably based in the fact that the Holy Spirit has gifted every believer to lead. Throughout the course of the Bible, those endowed with the Holy Spirit have been charged with leadership over God’s people (Josh. 1, Judges 13, 1 Sam 9/16, Matt. 3, Acts 2). Today, all those who place their faith in Jesus have received the Holy Spirit, and with Him the call and responsibility to lead God’s people. By not allowing them to exercise that calling, we are robbing them of the exercise of their God - given abilities.


Blogger posttinebraelux said...

I think you're spot on with the congregational style of polity with teaching/guidance given to the elder(s). I would differ with you somewhat with regard to your statement that the church is to carry out their goals under the direction of the elders 'and deacons'. I understand that most SB's have deacon led polities, but there really is no Biblical precedent for such. I think one of the most probable reasons for the skewed view of deacons is that we've reduced the number of elders in any given congregation. If the number of elders in a congregation was more reflective of the NT church, I think we'd be able to allow deacons their God give roles of serving/meeting temporal needs of the church.

Grace to you,


11:03 AM  

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